I’ve often been told that I like to make life extremely hard for myself. I opted to swim the longest distances over my swimming career; I chose to go to a university that grade-deflates; I took a job with a software sales company while knowing literally nothing about business or technology. The way I see it, I like to challenge myself to keep things interesting. One of the biggest commitments I made, however, was when six days into my undergraduate experience, I opted to take Arabic to fulfill my language requirement.
I learned to read by memorizing words when I was three years old; by the time other kids were being taught phonetically, I was blowing through chapter books. To this day, I have enough problems pronouncing unfamiliar words in English because I never learned how to sound words out. (Seriously, what is the difference between a long a and a short a?) You would think this wouldn’t be a problem, but it makes learning foreign languages extremely difficult. Luckily, with Latin-based languages, such as the Spanish I took throughout middle and high school, I just needed to memorize the English translation of the word. With Arabic, I needed to memorize the following:
- How to pronounce the word in Arabic (which I would scribble next to the word in English)
- How to read the word in Arabic (better once I got the non-Latin alphabet down)
- The English translation of the word
- The vowels, which aren’t written most of the time and affect the pronunciation
- The variations (verbs, nouns, etc.) of the root, which can be innumerable
Needless to say, it was hard.
And, as I’ve found this week, INCREDIBLY useful. One of the reasons I learned Arabic was so that I would understand the Arab culture that I was studying. Learning Standard Arabic means that you have a good basis to work with, but like other languages, Arabic can vary from country or even regions of the country.
This translates (no pun intended) exactly to working with different customers. There is a common thread of languages that weaves through projects, no matter the industry, region, or solution. But it is vital to a project’s success that you adapt to the customer’s language as well. Like Arabic, even a few words in a local’s own language can be the difference between being a stubborn tourist that won’t acclimate and a hearty welcome for making an effort to understand the culture into which you are trying to submerse. Look no further than Middle Easterners’ perception of Americans to see how poorly the former attitude reflects on a “brand”.
My two years of Arabic weren’t easy, but they taught me valuable lessons about understanding the importance of culture, whether a tourist or a company representative at a customer. And just think of how much easier learning a customer’s language is – all the acronyms are in English!